A decade in Indian writing: Jerry Pinto's fiction to Sampurna Chattarji’s poetry, notes on 10 years of reading

  • One of the great truths of reading in India is that so many of us read for instruction as opposed to pleasure.

  • A small forest is chopped down every year to print self-help books for middle-class Indians.

  • At least some of the books that find their way onto this list, therefore, are books I picked up to learn more about something or someone.

The books that we read add up to a biography of sorts. One doesn’t need a Star Trek gadget to look inside somebody’s head if you’ve already taken a good long look at their shelves. I realised this once I started reviewing books professionally, back in 2012. Therefore, when asked to write about the 2010s in Indian English writing, I knew that this would be, in part, a piece about growing up — I was 22 at the beginning of this decade and I turned 31 earlier this month. I’m an upper-caste Hindu man, born to mild-mannered parents with college degrees, and I grew up just a couple of miles away from Ranchi’s British Council library. These privileges must be mentioned because they’re inextricable from what I choose to read and why.

One of the great truths of reading in India is that so many of us read for instruction as opposed to pleasure — a small forest is chopped down every year to print self-help books for middle-class Indians. Contrary to popular belief, a latent reverence for fascism isn’t why Mein Kampf is a perennial bestseller in Indian train stations. It’s the need to know more about something or someone who is a familiar name but little else.

At least some of the books that find their way onto this list, therefore, are books I picked up to learn more about something or someone. Somewhere along the line, I realised that they were so well-written that I would’ve been well-advised to pick them up anyway. Plus I’ve always found it a bit sad that academic books don’t make it to lists like these (reading most of them offers you all the pleasures of a root canal procedure, but still), so I’m going to change that.

FICTION —

By the time the 2010s came along, I had already read and admired Anjum Hasan’s novels: Lunatic In My Head (2007) and its follow-up, Neti, Neti (2009). In 2012, Hasan released Difficult Pleasures, which was to be her only short story collection until 2019’s A Day in the Life. For me, these two books (more so than her novels) confirm Hasan as one of the finest Indian writers alive. She tends to fly under the radar because of her modest sales figures (and, of course, the universal reluctance to acknowledge female genius). Which is a pity because very few writers can ‘talk’ to existing works of art like Hasan does — like in her stories ‘Immanuel Kant in Shillong’ and ‘The Lady With the Dog’. The latter has so many subtle thematic and philosophical links with Chekhov’s short story of the same name that it’d take a separate essay to unpack ‘em all.

My favourite novel of 2012, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, has aged well through the years, I am happy to report. Like so many of us who read it back then, I was blown away by the monstrous energy on the page, by its sheer linguistic audacity (a string of Hamlet puns comes to mind). Based on the lives of his own parents (Pinto’s mother was bipolar), Em and the Big Hoom remains a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a novel.

 A decade in Indian writing: Jerry Pintos fiction to Sampurna Chattarji’s poetry, notes on 10 years of reading

KR Meera’s 2014 masterpiece Hangwoman (translated from the Malayalam original Aarachaar by J Devika) is a shoo-in for this list, as it is for many others, I imagine. The novel follows Chetna Grddha Mullick, a young woman born into a family of executioners — and easily one of the most memorable literary protagonists of the 2010s. Her superb short story collection, Yellow is the Colour of Longing (2011) also makes the cut. Among works from other Indian languages, the other towering achievement of the decade was Daisy Rockwell’s translation of three of Hindi titan Upendranath Ashk’s books — the short story collection Hats and Doctors, plus two of the novels in his Girti Deewarein cycle, Falling Walls and In the City a Mirror Wandering.

I’m cheating a little bit while including The Fabulous Feminist: A Suniti Namjoshi Reader (2013, Zubaan), because most of the pieces included here were not, in fact, written in this decade. But how could I not? As new readers will discover through this excellent selection, Namjoshi is one of the most important Indian writers of all time (her novella The Mothers of Maya Diip is on undergrad curricula across the country). Her animal fables are often deconstructions of the genre itself, asking difficult questions about who gets to tell their story, and when, and how loudly. Had cancer not taken Angela Carter (Namjoshi’s exact contemporary) from us in 1992, she would have been writing books resembling The Fabulous Feminist, one feels certain.

And speaking of animal fables, the 2010s saw Nilanjana Roy (whose work as a critic probably lands her a spot on this list anyway) writing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness, novels featuring Maara, Beraal, Katar, Hulo and the rest of ‘the Nizamuddin clan’, an inimitable gang of cats she created. I’m probably a little bit biased because I’m a cat parent (like Roy). But these books really are a lot of fun, irrespective of how you feel about felines. When I read them, I was still many years away from meeting my own cats. And I just wonder whether Roy’s books were at the back of my mind last year when I took the decision to adopt them.

Comics and graphic novels are an area where Indian literature took small but significant steps in this decade. Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva and Appupen’s Aspyrus were probably the two outstanding individual works of the decade, while This Side, That Side, Yoda’s 2013 collection of graphic Partition narratives (curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh), was surely the greatest anthology.

In the second half of the 2010s, Prayaag Akbar’s novel Leila and Tanuj Solanki’s short story collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar stand out amidst the rest — not least because they are both, in very different ways, highly effective Indian horror stories. They remind us of the hundreds of millions of Indians who are second-class citizens in their own country. If you’re Dalit or Muslim or adivasi (to name a few prominent axes) your ideas, your desires and of course, your body, can be snuffed out instantaneously.

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Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019) rounded off a very successful decade for one of the best-known Indian writers on the planet. Benyamin’s novels Goat Days and The Yellow Lights of Death marked him as one of the leading Indian novelists of the decade ahead. The same is true for Anees Salim’s The Small-Town Sea and more recently, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field.

(Honourable mentions: Annie Zaidi’s Love Stories #1-13, Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Gochar, Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Lost Men, Easterine Kire’s When the River Sleeps and everything ever written by Vandana Singh and Kuzhali Manickavel, two modern-day masters of speculative and ‘weird’ fiction, respectively)

NON-FICTION —

The first few names on this list are easy picks — these are books that I believe must be taught to every young person in this country. Of these, Bhimayana came first, in early 2011 — this is a graphic adaptation of chapters from BR Ambedkar’s life. It was written by Srividya Natarajan and S Anand (also the publisher) and illustrated by the Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Bhimayana is accessible yet no-nonsense, gorgeously drawn yet uninterested in aesthetics-for-its-own-sake. It is the kind of history you wish you saw more of in Indian classrooms.

Shashank Kela’s A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi Resistance 1800-2000 is an academically thorough, well-researched book that also happens to be superbly written. At the intersection of history, sociology and realpolitik, Kela’s work is a powerful testament to how India has otherised some of its oldest indigenous communities.

Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants works in two distinct modes — there’s the more personal history of Gidla’s own family, and then there’s the historian’s mode of chronicling caste-based oppression in India. Gidla’s achievement is in merging these two modes seamlessly, until the reader doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins. Neyaz Farooque’s An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism is similarly valuable, not only as an account of a Jamia Nagar childhood (particularly now, for obvious reasons) but also as a primer on how young Muslims in India have become used to looking over their shoulders in fear.

To those of us who have been in various parts of Delhi, protesting against the CAA-NRC-NPR alphabet soup, Harsh Mander has been a constant calming presence, handing out pamphlets, talking to some decidedly rowdy cops, or just reading with protesting students on the sidewalk. His books — like Ash in the Belly, Looking Away and Unheard Voices — tell the stories of some of the poorest and most disenfranchised communities in the country. One of my editors once asked me what I thought of him and I said, “He’s the kind of unsexy writer more and more people should read in India”. I stand by that statement.

POETRY —

I used to read a lot more poetry (as one does) in my early 20s, so this section may be dominated by early 2010s works — my sincere apologies for this.

Adil Jussawalla’s Trying to Say Goodbye (2012) represents one of our greatest-ever poets at the peak of his powers. Poems like ‘Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes’ (where Jussawalla uses opening lines from eight late Indian poets including Agha Shahid Ali), will not be forgotten anytime soon. I read Sridala Swami’s 2014 collection Escape Artist bang in the middle of a personal crisis, but I remembering smiling a lot while reading it on the Metro — and I really can’t think of higher praise than that.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Collected Poems: 1969-2014 is the handsome, well-produced volume that one of our best poets deserved. His Songs of Kabir, published in 2011, also deserves a separate place. Sampurna Chattarji’s collection Space Gulliver (2015) is one of the weirdest books on this list, and also one of the most identifiably unique ones. The late, great Vijay Nambisan’s last collection, First Infinities, was without a doubt one of the finest books of 2015 — and underscores just what we lost with his 2017 demise. Ranjit Hoskote gets two slots on the list, for I Lalla, his masterful translation of Lal Ded’s verses, as well as his own collection Central Time.

More recently, I have enjoyed reading Sharanya Manivannan’s The Altar of the Only World and Urvashi Bahuguna’s Terrarium. In the years ahead, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about both of these stellar young writers.

Read more from our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 01, 2020 00:06:51 IST